Dear Father John, if contemplative prayer is seeking Him whom my soul loves, what does one do to learn how to love God? I see this as a huge gap in the development of Catholic life and Catholic spirituality among the laity. We teach people how to worship, how to pray, what is right and wrong, but we never teach people – young or old – how to love the God we cannot see and touch and hold, and what that love is like compared to loving our mother or friend or spouse or child. Isn’t contemplative prayer empty until we can get to that point?
In our first post, we discussed the meaning of the word “love”. We reflected together that love can be an emotion or a virtue, and for supernatural charity that refers to the love of God himself.
Growing in Love
As we grow spiritually, these three meanings of love come together. Our love for God begins to put order into our emotions, and we discover less contrast between our natural emotional preferences and the demands of virtue. Our love for God also begins to purify our minds and hearts, so that we begin to see others as God sees them, and even their objective flaws and imperfections do not impede our appreciation of them. Likewise, as our love for God matures, we embrace his will with more and more emotional relish, even when his will contradicts our natural preferences.
But on the road to that maturity, the different loves can cause a lot of turbulence in the soul. We can simultaneously experience a profound emotional repugnance towards a person that we know we must serve with kindness. On the other hand, we can feel a powerful emotional attraction towards someone that we should not become emotionally involved with. In this case, the virtue of love will enable us to keep a respectful emotional distance. Sometimes it will take every ounce of our strength to resist a temptation against obedience to God’s will. The spiritual life really is a battle.
Love and Prayer
Now we can bridge into a brief reflection on the relationship between prayer and love. Our life of prayer both flows from our love for God (which propels us towards a deeper and deeper communion with him), and nourishes that love. This is why we can’t say that prayer is “empty” until we love. Rather, prayer is an expression of love (whether immature or mature) and a way to nourish our love.
Contact with God in prayer allows his grace to purify us from selfishness and darkness of sin, to remove obstacles that impede our love for God and neighbor. Mental prayer (meditation and acquired contemplation) is critical in this process. Meditation exercises and strengthens our faith, hope, and charity. And if God grants us the grace of infused contemplation, it does the same thing: it strengthens, purifies, and enlightens the soul, so that we can then imitate Christ more fully in our daily living. Remember, St. Teresa of Avila ceaselessly reminds us that “the water is for the plants.” In other words, the consolation that God grants us in prayer (and there is no greater consolation that that which comes from infused contemplation) is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a gift from God that actually inflames our hearts with greater love, and leads us to grow in the Christian virtues, especially love.
Normally, the gift of infused contemplation will be given only when a person has already developed a marked maturity in faith, hope, and supernatural charity. Otherwise, the contemplation may overwhelm the soul, and the person could easily become enamored more of the gift of consolation than of the giver of that gift.
Let us all continue to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) as we strive to live a deeper love for God and neighbor. And in his wisdom, God will surely harmonize in our souls the emotion and the virtue of love, so that “his joy may be in us, and our joy may be made full” (cf. John 15:11).
Art for this post asking “How Does a Person Learn to Love God? (Part II of II)”: The Ecstasy of St. Catherine of Siena, Pompeo Batoni, 1743, PD-US published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.